Nuclear Terrorism

So now that I have covered the CB and R portions, it is time to handle N. Once again, I’m getting a lot of my information from the International Counter-Terrorism Institute’s 2003 report, so I think it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

So, let’s ask the same questions again of nuclear terrorism plans: what are the threat vectors? how potent would such a weapon be? and how difficult would it be to develop such a weapon?

The answer to the threat vector question is: air, land, or sea. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. An air attack would require a plane and pilot capable of transporting a nuclear device to get into range. Such a plane, however, may be shot down if the pilot makes it too obvious that there is something amiss, and shooting down the device means that the plan fails entirely, as nuclear devices are delicate things which require a precise set of actions to occur in order to detonate—meaning that it would not detonate upon impact with the surface, as some conventional munitions might. An airborne attack would allow an EMP bomb to be used, though such a device is probably beyond the capabilities of any regimes which would hand over nuclear devices to terrorists, either now or in the near future. A ground attack has the advantage of being the scariest-looking and more difficult to detect than an aerial blast, but the destruction would be more limited than an air attack, and one would hope that there are security measures in place at big gatherings and major centers which would detect a nuclear device. Finally, a sea attack might be the easiest to pull off, though the effects of this would be fairly limited.

To further illustrate what a nuclear device would likely do, I give you the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator.  A 10-kiloton device (which appears to be a reasonable estimate) could destroy a few square blocks and damage several more in a ground attack.  The good news is that this follows a cubic growth pattern, so that a 1-megaton device would not, in fact, destroy 100 times as much as a 10-kiloton device.  The other good news is that getting a 1-megaton device would be extremely difficult for countries, and almost impossible for terrorist groups.  The bad news, though, is that if such a terrorist group gets this sized device, a 1-megaton device would effectively destroy Chicago.

So, we have a rough idea of the destructive power of such a device, as well as the avenues through which terrorist groups could potentially detonate such a device.  Now let’s talk about how to develop such a device.  The good news for us is that it would be impossible for a terrorist group to, on its own, develop a nuclear device.  They would need enough fissionable nuclear material, a great deal of equipment, processing facilities, and nuclear scientists.  Countries cannot do this on the sly, so there is no chance that a terrorist organization could set everything up without anybody getting word or a spy satellite noticing an odd processing facility in the Sudan.  So in short, for a terrorist attack involving a nuclear device, there must be a state sponsor handing such a device over.  This would result in assured retaliation and the complete destruction of any country which has ties to the terrorist group plotting the attack.

How about, instead, the possibility that a terrorist organization purchases or steals a nuclear device?  As it stands, nuclear devices are the most precious military instruments of the countries which own them.  As such, these are usually well-guarded—even in Russia and Pakistan.  Regarding purchasing the devices, this is slightly more possible, but I still consider it extremely unlikely, as no country with nukes at present (I’m not including North Korea for this) would want to get tied back to a nuclear terrorist attack, as this would also presumably lead to a nuclear retaliation.  So for right now, there is no threat.  This, however, will change soon.  North Korea and Iran are both developing nuclear devices, and there is a fear that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, this will lead countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to also try to get such weapons.  In this case, the number of countries with direct ties to terrorist organizations jumps and the chances of some government deciding to take a risk also goes up.  Chemical, Biological, and Radiological terrorism we can effectively write off due to the fact that it either won’t work or won’t be worth it.  Unfortunately, I fear that we cannot do the same for nuclear terrorism.  The technical aspects of such a device—how to get it into the US, where to attack, the chances of foiling—show that it would still be difficult to accomplish, and the retaliatory effect would be devastating, but this is the one which could actually happen.

Risk – Zero (now); Medium to High (within several years).  Terrorist groups don’t have nuclear devices at present (thankfully).  If Iran gets a working nuclear device, the risk immediately jumps to medium.  If North Korea is able to get working devices, I would put the risk at Low-Medium, as Kim Jong-Il is crazy, but he’s not a millenarian.  But if Iran does develop such a nuclear capability, there will be an Arab world scramble for the devices, and that will put the risk up to High.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Very High.  The only potential case in which nuclear retaliation would not occur is if other countries—such as Israel—were “held hostage.”  However, the US has enough nuclear firepower to obliterate a country and even if Iran does develop nuclear devices, it would not be able to develop enough to withstand a retaliatory strike and still have some in reserve.  This isn’t a Cold War scenario; we’re talking about countries with upwards of a half-dozen or so.  A half-dozen can do a great deal of damage, but if Iran were to be behind a nuclear attack on an American city, there would not be an Iran the next day.
Likelihood of Failure – Medium.  Nuclear devices are complex things, which means a mechanical failure has to be taken into account.  In addition, such an attack can be foiled through Geiger counters and other devices which detect radioactive materials.  A functional nuclear bomb would have difficulty getting through a port (either air or sea) without detection, so a ground attack would almost definitely have to come up through the southern border.  Then, it becomes a matter of whether security personnel at the attack site have the equipment and training to detect such a device.
Media Factor – Extremely High.  A nuclear attack is the ultimate attack (at least at present), and there would be tremendous, long-term coverage of the event.

A Conversation—With Pictures!

Here are snippets of a conversation with a friend of mine at the Weinachtsmarkt last night. I have thrown in pictures so that Tony doesn’t get bored, and so he can understand. Snippets have been added to make me look funnier (shaddup), but roughly 90% of it is actual conversation, at least as I recall it. All of the pictures are under the fold, so click on to see more.

Continue reading

Radiological Weapons—The Dirty Bomb

A dirty bomb looks, on the face of things, to be a nightmarish scenario for counterterrorist activity.  It is extremely easy to put together, in that it requires little more than conventional explosives and radioactive material—which can be stolen from any one of 21,000 companies…in the US alone—and could require major cleanup costs.  Throw in radiation poisoning, cancer, and the whole host of bad things which can happen with radioactive materials and you have a novel right there.   But, because I am not writing a novel, let us take a look at the radiological dispersal device (RDD).   Once again, we must focus on the threat vector, costs and benefits, and chances of success.

The dangerous part about the dirty bomb is that the chances for success are very high.  They are significantly higher than for chemical and biological weapons.  Meanwhile, although an RDD attack is not as likely to succeed as a nuclear device would be, it has the advantage of being extremely inexpensive.  Media reports say that biological and chemical attacks can be done on a shoestring budget, but in reality, it can take hundreds of millions (to billions) of dollars and top-level scientific know-how to get a theoretically-functioning attack.  Meanwhile, an RDD only costs as much as the bomb and the price of stealing radioactive materials.  This makes it, by far, the cheapest and most cost-effective of the CBNR family.  On these merits, it would be a great idea to devote resources mainly toward the R and away from CB (with N not mentioned yet, as I will get to that tomorrow).  But we aren’t quite done yet…  We still have to talk about the benefits that such a device would bring to a terrorist organization.

And what are these benefits?  Well, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, practically none.  In their fact sheet concerning RDDs, the NRC states that the likely effect will not be any more powerful than the conventional explosives in the device.  In fact, they state, “It is extremely unlikely that anyone who survives the explosion will become sick from radiation.”  Furthermore, although decontamination is a potentially very expensive process, it can be done.  And emergency responders have equipment which can detect radioactive material, so it would become quickly known whether this was an RDD attack, so that decontamination and sealing off the premises could be handled very quickly, even further reducing the impact of the radioactive material.

In addition, there are two problems concerning the use of radioactive materials.  First of all, I noted the 21,000+ companies in the US (as cited in the fact sheet), but the problem for any would-be terrorist is that most of these companies use materials which would not be useful in a dirty bomb.  The example they give is that, even though a hospital does have a fair amount of radioactive material (in X-Ray machines, for example), it would not be powerful enough to cause any additional problems on top of the explosion.  So even if a terrorist organization steals Cesium-137 or Plutonium-238 from a nuclear facility in a foreign country and smuggles it through the porous southern border and sets up an attack, the end effect is no better than if they just scrapped the radioactive material part entirely.

Now, one benefit that terrorist organizations would have is that such an attack can protect their state benefactors.   An RDD could be assembled without government assistance—which stands totally in contrast to nuclear devices and almost totally in biological and chemical—so the opportunities for a nuclear retaliation become slimmer.  A terrorist-supporting state with reserves of spent plutonium—say, Iran—could conceivably assist in a radiological attack with less fear of consequence than if a nuclear device were to go off.

So, once more, the breakdown:
Risk – Medium.  A dirty bomb is the most likely of CBNR attacks at the present time.  There have not been any such attacks recorded, but there have been some foiled plots, and unlike biological weapons, it is actually possible to turn this kind of attack into reality.  But once again, I must re-state that I rank the potential for damage as Low.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Low.  It would be difficult to pin this back to an individual goverment, given that a terrorist organization could do it without state support.
Likelihood of Failure – Very Low.  Procuring radioactive materials suitable for such a device may be difficult, and Geiger counters could detect the radioactive material if they attempt to come in through air or sea lanes, but this is by far the most difficult part.  The mechanics of the device are rather simple, and there are a lot of terrorist bomb-makers, so this is no more complex for them than filling a bomb with nails or shrapnel.
Media Factor – High.  The first few hours will be confusion and panic, but that should settle down somewhat after a couple of days.  The problem is that most reporters and journalists don’t have a clue about much of anything, so they’ll publish some potentially harmful things and might work to incite panic far better than a well-informed media corps.

Radiological Terrorism: Too Many Questions Left

I wanted to writ e up a post on radiological terrorism today, but as I was scratching things down during the International Monetary Economics tutorial (official motto: “It’s the same material as the lecture, but boring!”), I kept coming up with more and more questions. I want to put a bit of research into these questions, so I hope I will be able to write it up tomorrow.

In the meantime, I am going to try to get some pictures of the Freiburg Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas Market, for those who seriously cannot look it up. I mean, come on, it’s not that difficult.)

The Potency Of Chemical Terrorism

Over the past week, I have taken a thorough look at the different Category A bioterror threats and found all of them to be wanting in seriousness and less effective than commonly believed. Today, I am going to take a look at chemical terrorism. A fair amount of information will come from the International Counter-Terrorism Institute’s 2003 report on CBNR weapons.

Just like biological weapons, we have to understand three things to conduct any form of appropriate cost-benefit analysis: threat vectors; range of potency of the weapon (obviously also thinking about what would cause the attack to be more or less effective than expected); and the technological know-how, scientific equipment, and financial resources necessary to manufacture an appropriate weapon.

According to the ICT article linked above, chemical weapons have three primary threat vectors: gas/vapor, liquid/aerosol, and dry solid. In addition to the form, there are four classes of chemical weapons: lung-damaging “choking” agents, “blood agents” which interfere with cellular respiration, agents which cause chemical burns (“burning” agents), and nerve agents. So basically, they work through uncovered skin or unimpeded access to the respiratory system. For a large-scale terrorist attack, I would rate nerve agents as the tops, due to their deadliness in small doses. Blood agents are decent for assassination attempts, but would be terrible for a large-scale attack. Choking agents are not quite as deadly as nerve agents, though they could also be used. And finally, burning agents are very unlikely to kill people, though they will leave nasty wounds. So I would break down an attack distribution of nerve-choking-burning at roughly 60%-30%-10% in terms of which terrorists would choose, given the opportunity.

Now, let us talk about the know-how and resources necessary to pull off a successful attack. As the standard argument goes, pretty much anybody can get chemical weapons, leaving them a low-cost and high-potency option for an attack. Just set up a fake (or real) corporation dealing with common industrial materials, get a few gallons of the stuff, and off you go. This, however, is not the experience of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Aum is, as I have pointed out, the Dr. Doom of terrorist organizations. They were staffed with top scientists, had the resources of a government, and were dedicated toward causing mass destruction. The culmination of their efforts was the Tokyo subway sarin attack. The end result of this was 12 deaths and approximately 1300 injuries (as well as roughly 3700 people who were treated at hospitals but did not have any physical injury). This was after five years of planning and millions of dollars in resources (as well as the aforementioned scientific expertise). So, Aum proved that a non-state organization could potentially have the resources and knowledge to pull off a chemical attack, but despite the fact that they attacked during rush hour and were trying to maximize the death count, they still only managed to kill 12—and some of these deaths were because the trains kept going even after cases of injuries were being made known.

Now, once again I would like to use incidents of terrorist attacks as a proxy for their likelihood. According to the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database, there were 51 chemical weapon attacks since 1968. Of those, I am interested primarily in everything after the Aum sarin attack, leaving 27, including 22 after September 11th. Let us take a look at this, with a year-by-year breakdown, eliminating any cases dealing with assassination attempts or directly applied lethal poison attacks (such as this case of a suspected informer in Kashmir) because they could not be reproduced on a large scale.

2005 – Food poisoning in Iraq (0 deaths, 3 injuries)
2004 – Ricin found in a letter to Bill Frist (0, 0)
2003 – Poisoned bottled water in Italy (0, 50); Ricin letter to be sent to the White House (0, 0); Ricin letter to be sent to the Department of Transportation (0, 0); 8 cases of Adamsite [a non-lethal irritant used in rocket fuel and to kill rats] in letters in Belgium (0, 0); cyanide in New Zealand letters (0, 0); FARC attack in Colombia (0, 4)
2002 – Greece: “A homemade device, made up of six gas canisters, caused heavy damage to the Eurobank branch at 158 Ethnikis Antistaseos St. No further information is provided.” (0?, 0?); FARC poisons water supply (?, ?); cyanide letter sent to US Embassy in New Zealand (0, 0)
2001 – Molotov cocktails and acid thrown at policemen in Spain (0, 2); cartridge of tear gas thrown through a window in Krgystan (0, 0); acid thrown on women in Kashmir (0, 6); acid bombs thrown at police cars in Spain (0, 2); CS gas attacks on schools in Vietnam (0, 132 in this case; estimates of 0, 500 over a two-month period)
1998 – Food posioning in Japan (4, 60); water supply poisoning in Albania (?, ?)

So, what is the important number here? 4: the number of confirmed chemical terror-related deaths since the 1995 attack. Of the 24 attacks I have listed, here is another way of breaking them down:
Mail attacks – 13 (with almost none of these cases intending to actually kill anybody, and overall 0 injuries of fatalities)
Water and food supply attacks – 5
Conventional weapons mixed with chemical weapons – 4
Other – 2 (Vietnam school attack and Krgystan tear gas attack)

Now, this list does not include foiled attacks, such as an attempt to use hydrogen cyanide (a blood agent, and therefore useless in this purpose) on the London subway or the ricin attack plans found in England. Even with this noted, however, it should be fairly plain that chemical attacks are not an extremely potent threat. They are more reasonable than the biological attacks, due to the fact that they require fewer resources and the aerosol problem does not exist for them as it does for biological attacks, but for a terrorist who wants to leave a big impression, chemical attacks just don’t seem like the best route.

Another aspect to consider is the factor of state-sponsored terrorism. Several governments have chemical weapons and could potentially hand these off to terrorists for an attack. However, if this attack were to take place in the United States, the doctrine to follow up a CBNR attack with a nuclear retaliation might act as a deterrent. The problem would be figuring out who was responsible for handing over chemical weapons to terrorist organizations, however.

One final note is to discuss very quickly what might cause such an attack to fizzle out. Chemical weapons work best in enclosed areas without purification systems. Obviously, the mustard gas attacks during World War I show that outdoor attacks can occur, but as the gas spreads, it loses its lethality. An agent in liquid form, such as sarin, faces this problem as well. Wind patterns could disrupt outdoor attacks, and it is possible that filtration systems could mitigate the deadliness of certain chemical compounds. For poisoning water supplies, the best route to go would be like the way in Italy: attack bottled water. Most cities in the US and Western Europe have excellent water purification systems, so attempting to poison the tap water supplies of those cities would fail.

Risk – Low. It is interesting to see just how few chemical attacks have taken place since September 11th, and how many of them boil down to instances where the attacker either did not intend to cause harm (such as the Ricin letters of 2003) or where they did not use a potent enough chemical compound to cause harm (Adamsite).  Chemical attacks are more likely than biological attacks, but in the western world, they still rank is rather unlikely.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Medium.  It would be difficult to figure out who passed along the chemicals, but if a government is involved in a big chemical attack on US soil (even to the extent of Aum’s Tokyo attack), a nuclear retaliation would be likely.
Likelihood of Failure – Medium to High.  Chemical weapons have their own distribution problems and depend heavily on circumstances such as the weather.  They are also not that easy to weaponize and use in an attack in the West.  It can happen, though, especially on the weak side of things—such as the Italian bottled water poisoning example.
Media Factor – Low to High.  Cases of food poisoning would receive almost no attention.  Water supply poisoning would rank as a medium, as would poisoned letters.  The ricin bust in England was more of a medium-high, and the Aum attack was high.  Chemical weapons probably have the biggest range of deadliness, so it makes sense that the media response would be somewhat proportionate—although if that were always the case, then the anthrax letters would not have received all that much coverage…

Tomorrow: Chemical Terrorism

This is a quick note to anybody who has been reading the bioterror series.  I will be continuing it with several more articles.  Tomorrow, I am going to unleash my article on chemical terrorism.  As a quick note, I will not be quite as sanguine as I was with bioterror, but what this means, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow for.

Tonight, however, I am going to see Borat with a friend.  There is a 14.2% chance that I will write some kind of follow-up.  More importantly, I am making stuffing tomorrow.  I was struggling to find the bread crumbs necessary for stuffing, but eventually did, so all is good.  There is a 48.9% chance that I will have some kind of stuffing-related follow-up.

I Cannot Take Off My Pants

This is how good Shabbat dinner was…  There wasn’t any turkey, though the chicken was, as usual, extremely good.  The only downside was that there were only five people total, including me, so I had to carry more of the conversational load than I really should.  After all, last year, we had specialization down pat:  there were three or four people whose job it was to talk, and I would eat.  This year, I threw in some “Doch”s just to remind people that I was still alive, but now many people are gone, so there will be weeks when I have to—horror of horrors!—actually speak on occasion.  This completely ruins everything, but somehow I was able to survive the ordeal…

The pants have been removed and replaced safely with pajamas.  It’s not that I put on the extra pounds tonight (though I probably ate enough to…  It was almost a legitimate Thanksgiving meal); rather, these pants have the button on the inside, which is rather difficult to undo with freshly-trimmed fingernails (trimmed _before_ Shabbat, thank-you-very-much).

Oh, and me posting on Shabbat?  I have no idea what you’re talking about…